We need atheists. I am glad we have them. Atheists disbelieve bad images of God. In most cases, I find that atheists and I disbelieve in the same bad ideas of God. It is important to disbelieve in the bad God some theists proclaim, because He (and I use the word advisedly) stands between us and truth, and elevates to supreme value character traits that are reprehensible – jealously, vengeance, violence, etc.
For Christians, talking about God has always been tricky business since our idea of God is an infinite progression. We do not believe the ultimate reality and value of everything can be reduced to words. Hence, the Jewish ban on speaking the name of God or rendering a visual image of God. (That is why in the ancient world Jews were often called “atheists.”) Going back at least to the 6th Century, we have insisted that we cannot say anything directly about God. We can only use metaphors that point toward the mystery. We can only use analogies to say God is like this or like that. But we have insisted that these analogies are severely limited. God is actually more unlike anything than God is like it. So whatever we say about God is more wrong than it is right. (Wittgenstein to the contrary, we still must speak of God – but that’s another blog post). So Christian discussion about God should always be “God is like x” – but immediately some one must respond “No not really.” It’s called the via affirmativa (saying something sort of true about God) and the via negative (denying the untruth). It is as old as the Church. Atheists do the via negativa part. We need that.
The fundamental issue where this plays out is over the question of whether God “exists.” Atheists main point is to deny that there is a being named “God” (or some such thing) who “exists” alongside the other beings in the universe – only this God being is older or smarter or stronger or in some way superior to the rest of us. That is what no doubt what some Christians mean by “God.” But that is by no means the ancient traditional belief of Christianity.
If we go back to St. Anselm’s 10th Century logical proofs of God, he was not proving the existence of a being among other beings. St. Thomas Aquinas, echoing both Augustine and classical Greek philosophy, referred to God as “Being.” Translators of the mystical Thomist, Meister Eckhart, use the word “suchness.” One of the two greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th Century protested against “the God of theological theism” (meaning the being among other beings) in favor of faith in “the Ground of Being.” The best contemporary theologians do not fall into the category Tillich called “theological theism.” They are closer to the atheists than to primitive theists. If I may presume to quote from my own book, God Of Our Silent Tears:
“Many Christians never get past the children’s Sunday School picture of God as “the man upstairs.” Even if we aren’t so naively anthropomorphic as to think God is a man, we are apt to think he is a being along with the other beings in the universe, only bigger, stronger, smarter, and older. Like the abominable snowman or intelligent aliens, such a being might or might not exist. However, if such a being does exist, he is not God. Orthodox, traditional theology teaches that God is not a being along with all the other beings, just bigger.[i] Our best contemporary theologians agree. As Kathryn Tanner says, “God is not a kind of thing among other kinds of things.”[ii] God is that out of which all being arises and into which all being sinks when it ceases to be. St. Paul said, “From him and through him and to him are all things,” and “In him we live and move and have our being.” In Christian doctrine, God is the source, the destiny, and the meaning of reality. St. Augustine saw God as the ultimate object of all our longings.
Monotheism, if we stop to consider all that understanding of the divine nature means, is mind-boggling. When we say “God,” we mean something vastly greater than polytheists would mean by “a god.” We wrap so much up in the word “God.” We know that all reality has a source. Exactly what it is, we can’t say. But it begins somewhere, somehow, in something.[iii] We also know that reality is in motion, in process, that history and evolution are moving forward toward something – and that something toward which it is moving may well be its purpose. The 20th Century Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, wrote of God as the source and the destiny of reality, “the whence and the whither” – “whence comest thou? whither goest thou?”
Likewise we believe, or at least hope, that there is some deep sense to reality, some order, some meaning. We believe that there is truth and that the truths we know, and the truths we do not yet know, may be ordered within an overarching, comprehensive structure of Truth which we cannot know. We value things. Indeed, we hold that things actually have intrinsic value. And of all that is valuable, there must be that which is most valuable, ultimately valuable, something that finally matters. Just so, we delight in beauty, believing, or at least hoping, that there may be a greatest beauty beyond the reach even of our imagination.”
Miriam-Webster defines “atheist” as “a person who believes that God does not exist.” The word “exist” means to be a being in the universe separate from the other beings – hence the ex. In that sense, Christians would say, using the classic via affirmative and via negativa, God exists in the sense of being a transcendent reality but does not exist in the sense that other things exist. Atheists are for the most part just denying that God “exists” in the sense that other things exist. They are generally not plugged into the question of transcendent reality.
Some atheists genuinely believe in a flat, tasteless, meaningless, absurd world devoid of any truth, meaning, beauty, goodness, or value. There are very few of them. Camus’s argument that you can deny all meaning and value to life and still not commit suicide was always his least persuasive point. So this brand of atheist, if they understand what they are saying, usually doesn’t last long. But most atheists would affirm something of truth (otherwise on what ground could they stand to deny God) or some goodness or some beauty in the world. Most would even dare to concede that there might truth that cannot be known, goodness that cannot be achieved, or beauty that they cannot even imagine. They do not choose to use the word “God” to apply to these ultimate values as Christians do. In a sense, we are then just quibbling over semantics. But there is something more bold and distinctive in the Christian use of “God” than just a word for ultimate value. We are rolling all the ultimate values into a kind of unity, saying with Keats “Beauty is truth; truth, beauty.” That is bold faith claim, which atheists might deny, but then they fall more into polytheism than atheism properly speaking.
So I do rather like atheists. But only “rather,” only “somewhat.” There are a couple of things that bother me – not about atheism as a belief system but about the atheists I have known. First, I rarely sense a willingness on their part to hear me out, meet me on the same field, and talk about what I see as our commonalities and differences. They are often insistent on attributing to me beliefs I do not hold. Many atheists are a bit too fond of shooting straw gods, and unwilling to talk with me about the God I believe in. I know that many people just don’t connect with the language of metaphor and analogy we uses to speak of ultimate things. It’s like colorblindness. I accept that we just cannot speak each other’s tongues. But often I sense that the atheists I talk with are simply unwilling to hear me and consider that what I am saying may not be utterly idiotic. Putting Franklin Graham and Karl Rahner in the same hat is a huge and blatantly unfair category mistake.
My second objection is this: I have known pompous, bombastic fools who were believers. But I have also known many believers who were gentle, humble, openhearted, and open-minded. I have rarely known atheists who held their disbelief with the same humility and grace as the best of the believers. If they did, I would feel much more at home with them. Honestly, I would prefer the humble and gracious folk, whether they are believers or not to the arrogant of either the believing or he disbelieving creeds.
I conclude with one final good word about atheists. I have been contrasting atheists with believers (including theists, pantheists, and panenthists [meaning there is a reality that is present throughout the universe but extending beyond the universe – that would be my camp]). Now I compare atheists to the ever growing sect of apathists – that is to say, people who neither believe nor disbelieve, nor even wonder without knowing the answer like agnostics. Apathists just don’t care. They haven’t asked the question. We live in a time of increasing spiritual doltishness. In that context, hurray for the atheists who have asked the right questions even if they have not come to the same answers I have.
[i] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty Of The Infinite (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co., 2003) p. 164.
[ii] Katherine Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and Trinity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2001. p. 4. Kyoto philosopher Keiji Nishitani says, both Being and Nothingness float in an Absolute foundation which Christians call “God.” In the 13th Century, Thomas Aquinas called God “Being.” In the 20th Century, Paul Tillich called God “the ground of Being,” the “depth of existence.” They use these terms to say that God is not a being alongside other beings. God is rather the foundation of reality itself.
[iii] We may thing of this source temporally as in the originator or creator of the universe. Or we may think of it ontologically as the foundation, which now holds things in being.is